Week of 3/28/2004

Dear EarthTalk: I heard that sea turtles are developing cancerous tumors at an alarming rate. What’s going on?

—Brendon Hunt, New York, NY

Sea turtles have long endured the pressures of hunting, intensive fishing practices and habitat degradation, including loss of nesting beaches due to human encroachment. In the last 20 years, marine turtles have also been the victims of a deadly tumor called Fibropapilloma, a bulbous growth that primarily affects the skin but also appears in the turtles" mouths, on their eyes and on internal organs.

The tumors can grow as large as a head of cauliflower, making it difficult for the animals to swim and find food. Internally, they can constrict the lungs and heart and affect the kidneys. In the 1980s, the disease began to reach epidemic proportions in shallow, near-shore waters off Hawaii, Florida and Barbados. The disease is now also present in Australia and the Pacific coasts of Mexico and Costa Rica.

The tumors have mostly been found on both young and adult green turtles, but have recently showed up on the Loggerhead, Hawksbill and Olive Ridley species. Sue Schaf of Florida’s Turtle Hospital, which treats and performs surgery on afflicted turtles, says, "We were seeing 50 percent of green turtles with tumors, but now it is closer to 70 percent and getting worse." In Hawaii, some 60 percent of the turtles are affected.

While progress is being made to understand Fibropapilloma, scientists are still puzzled as to what is causing the tumors. Their high prevalence in marine habitats near areas of heavy human use would lead one to believe that some form of pollution is the cause, such as runoff from fertilizer or farm waste, but research has been inconclusive. Some scientists speculate that a virus might be giving turtles the disease. Other marine experts blame the tumors on global warming, with increased water temperatures weakening the turtles" immune systems.

CONTACT: Turtle Hospital, (305) 743-6509, www.turtlehospital.org; Florida Marine Research Institute, (727) 896-8626, www.floridamarine.org; National Marine Fisheries Service, www.nmfs.noaa.gov.

Dear EarthTalk: Are there prepared lunches comparable to Oscar Mayer "Lunchables" that are healthier and more environmentally friendly?

—Carla Bahun, Marietta, GA

Oscar Mayer’s Lunchables are a hit with youngsters because of their bright packaging and fun-to-eat snacks. However, like much of the junk food marketed to children today, behind those colorful boxes and tasty treats lies a spectrum of potential health disasters. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) offers 10 tips in creating a nutritional lunch, and one of them is "Don’t send Lunchables," because the snacks derive "two-thirds of their calories from fat and sugar."

CSPI also includes Lunchables among their list of the "Top 10 Foods to Avoid" because, "It would be hard to invent a worse food than these combos of heavily processed meat, artery-clogging cheese and mostly-white-flour crackers. The regular (non-lowfat) line averages 5 1/2 teaspoons of fat (that’s 60 percent of calories) and 1,734 milligrams of sodium."

Moreover, Lunchables" form of attractive packaging is environmentally unfriendly. It consists of a plastic tray cut into various compartments, which is then sealed with a transparent and flexible film. This tray is then placed in an outer cardboard box. All this makes it very difficult to recycle, so much so that the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MASSPIRG) gave Lunchables a "Lifetime Waste Maker Achievement Award" in 1999

Currently, as there are not many known alternatives to such prepared foods, CSPI suggests packing one’s own lunch and snacks, which would be more environmentally friendly and far healthier for your children. If your kids insist on Lunchable-style meals, a simple alternative would be to whip up your own collection of healthy, low-fat snack replacements. In addition, CSPI offers tips on preparing a healthy lunch, such as leaving out the cheese altogether (or using low fat of fat-free cheese), adding vegetables to sandwiches, using low-fat crackers, using whole-grain bread instead of white bread, including fruit or juice (100% juice only), and using one percent or fat-free milk.

CONTACT: Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), (202) 332-9110, www.cspinet.org; Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MASSPIRG), 617-292-4800, www.masspirg.org.